Thursday, July 14, 2011

Virgin Vintage Viewings: The Third Man

Virgin Vintage Viewings is a series in which we view older well-known/classic films for the first time.

In my four years of studying film at Emerson College, I can't believe I never saw Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). This is a film that is studied, dissected, and appreciated by film enthusiasts and scholars. Everything about The Third Man begs discussion.

For starters, the gorgeous look of the film can be credited to director Reed (who, from what I gathered in my research, is an under appreciated filmmaker of the 40's and 50's) and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker. They used oblique angles, sharp lighting, and deep shadows to great effect here, beautifully illuminating Vienna's darkest corners. They even had the daunting task of making the underground sewer system a gorgeous sight to behold. I'm also always impressed when a film looks like it was made far ahead of its time.

I knew absolutely nothing about The Third Man going in, except that Orson Welles played a fellow by the name of Harry Lime. So when Joseph Cotten was investigating the death of Lime, I knew he wasn't dead. After all, Welles got top billing. I was surprised, however, to see Welles pop up no earlier than the 65-minute mark. Harry Lime is one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, and he's barely in the film! Needless to say, I was captivated by his charming appearance. His famous entrance, with the cat nuzzling beside his feet under the door frame in the alleyway, is gorgeously cinematic. This brief scene is movie magic; the way Welles' face lights up, Cotten's delayed reaction, and then that smile... that smile that only a movie star can deliver.

To better understand where I'm coming from, I haven't seen any of Orson Welles' films except for Citizen Kane (which, ironically enough, was covered ad nauseum during my film studies). I wasn't a big fan of Kane, though I did admire Welles' unique vision and passion. The camera loves him. He's not beautiful like Cary Grant, but he has a face that's impossible to ignore.

As for Joseph Cotten, he performs adequately enough, but I wasn't overly impressed by his range. I heard Jimmy Stewart was an early candidate for the part. Now him I would liked to have seen! Maybe I would have appreciated Cotten more if I had known where Holly Martins was coming from. I was suspicious of him for a while, perhaps from my experience of watching movies where nothing is what it seems. I'm sure people were left wondering, "Who is Harry Lime?", but I wanted to know a little more about that amateur noir writer with a most unusual first name for a man.

I should also point out how much I greatly admired that final shot. Man, how marvelous would it have been to see that on the big screen. The best thing about The Third Man, in my virgin eyes, is how everything is framed. Watching Anna Schmidt walk past Holly Martins and beyond the camera was just pitch perfect. Visually, tonally and emotionally.

I was left with a few questions as the film ended. Like, why did Lime lure Martins to Vienna in the first place? Did Lime want him snooping around? And how exactly are Dr. "Vinkel" and Popescu involved in this? Clearly, they are working with Lime but to what extent? I'm sure after repeated viewings and further research, I'll have my answers.

I'm not familiar enough with the film noir genre to determine where The Third Man fits in that giant canon of greats (this film is usually uttered in the same breath as The Killing, Touch of Evil, even Casablanca, but I'll leave that dissertation to my buddy Pete, the noir aficionado that he is). But on its own merits, The Third Man is a movie lover's delight.

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